A war of words among the Agar Dinka of Sudan
A feud between two singers in the 1970s and the strife it caused.By John Ryle • 1987 • in Domestic Warfare: Essays in honour of Sir Michael Howard, edited by Mark James, Eastbury, Oxford (privately printed) • Revised with afterword • Posted 2016 • 3,806 words
Singing is a high art among the agro-pastoralist Dinka communities of rural Southern Sudan, integral to religious practice and indispensible in courtship. Their sacred songs, diet yai, are canonical texts, often verbally archaic, handed down over generations. So also, to a lesser extent, are the songs, specific to clans and tribal sections, that are performed communally at weddings and dances and, traditionally, before going into battle. Other kinds of Dinka song, notably those sung by young men when courting, are individually composed and performed. In rural Dinka communities each youth must have a repertoire of such songs. It is rare for these individual songs to outlast a season, though the works of a few celebrated composers endure and spread to distant parts of the flood plain, the vast area of grassland and swamp on the Upper Nile where the Dinka live.
Starting in the 1970s, audio cassette recorders, mine included, encouraged and speeded up this process. In 1980 most of the singers I recorded had never had the opportunity to listen to their own voices. But the advent of twin-deck audio cassette recorders made it easier to copy recordings and distribute them to places where the singer himself had no occasion to go. I spent some months that year living in Pacong, an Agar Dinka village near Rumbek, the capital of what was then Lakes Province, and in the nearby dry-season cattle camps. Before I arrived back in the capital of Sudan, Khartoum—many days’ travel away—copies of the tapes that had been made in Lakes a few months were before circulating among Dinka migrant workers living in the capital. Eight years on, with many Dinka displaced by the civil war which broke out in 1984, such tapes may serve to keep alive a memory of life in the villages and cattle camps of Dinkaland during the brief peace of the 1970s and the early 1980s.
Peace among pastoral groups may mean, rather than freedom from violence, freedom to fight in the old way, against other clans or tribal sections and neighbouring ethnic groups. Such conflicts tend to be rooted in longstanding quarrels and rivalries; the occasion of a particular outbreak of violence may be theft of cattle, an unpaid debt, a girl seduced without payment of brideprice, a dispute over grazing rights, or some more trifling offence. In such conflicts light spears and long clubs of ebony or rhino horn have been until recently the traditionally-sanctioned weapons. This hand-to-hand combat is often preceded and sometimes accompanied by war songs or sung insults. Such wounding words bring together two things that Dinka people value: rhetorical skill and physical bravery. Cool words, words of peace, are ultimately valued higher. But coolness tends to be the prerogative of chiefs and elders (in particular, religious leaders called spearmasters, baany bith). For young Dinka men in the cattle camps and villages—who are warriors by definition—a rhetoric of aggressive group selfaffirmation may be considered proper and admirable.
The Dinka are cattle-keepers and take intense pride in their livestock, particularly oxen (ie castrated males). Cattle are central to Dinka institutions, notably to marriage, which cannot take place without the exchange of cattle, and possession of cattle is an important source of social prestige. This bovine idiom—as it was termed by Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard, the ethnographer of the Nuer (a bordering people with a close cultural and linguistic relation to the Dinka)—is deployed in two genres of sung poetry: ox-songs, known among the Agar Dinka as kêêp, which indirectly glorify the owner of the ox, ie the singer himself, and his kin; and waak, songs that are composed and sung in the fattening camps where unmarried youths spend July and August, growing sleek and plump on the rich and plentiful milk of these grassy months. The songs dramatize the concerns of rural Dinka youth: clan disputes, rivalry in love, the necessity of obtaining cattle from reluctant relatives to pay bride price. They may be instrumental texts, designed to provoke rivals and impress the object of rivalry or shame relatives, by a mixture of praise and reproach, into making their contribution to the cost of marriage.
Look to your cows, young man
For the family of Ayuiu will defeat you
They will defeat you
You puppy, look out for Ayuiu
You will be needing many cows
We have pierced the horn of our ox Mangar and tied a tassel to it
We have pierced his horn with a red-hot spear
Wa! The bride is struggling like a captured cow
But she will be laughing tomorrow
As for you–run for your life
There’s a scorpion biting your backside.
Dinka songs are dense with reference to their cattle, the great-horned descendants of the extinct wild cattle of the Nile valley, interbred with lateral horned zebu introduced from Asia in early times. In paeans of praise for a favourite ox (accompanying him as he performs his songs at dusk on the perimeter of the cattle camp), a Dinka singer deploys innumerable metaphorical terms for specific colour-patterns on the hides of cattle—a hundred variations on ring-straked, spotted or piebald. Dinka also take such cattle colour names as their own names, so the names of men and cattle merge in poetry, as do their attributes of physical beauty, valour and strength. The names are usually allozoomorphic metaphors. Makuei, for example, in the song below, is the name for a ox or bull displaying a particular pattern of black and white on its hide. It is a name derived from kuei, the black and white fishing eagle, whose mewing cry is often heard in the swamplands; black-spotted Makuac is from kuac, the leopard (though to complicate things, Makuac in this song is a proper name for a person, not an ox-name).
My red-nosed Makuei is suffering
Until rains fall. And I am suffering
That’s how we are, Makuac. I love Makuei
Makuei loves me. Nowadays there is confusion
A woman may leave the house of her husband
Girls and their suitors don’t trust each other
People say girls are a good thing
But I’ve found this is not so
The poetics of vendetta
Dinka poetics and oratory, despite illuminating analyses by Godfrey Lienhardt and translations of songs by Francis Mading Deng, are only just beginning to be explored in scholarly literature, or in any kind of written record. In this account I do not presume to make any advance in the literary or linguistic analysis of Dinka texts. Rather I describe how, in one part of the Dinka territory, the inflammatory ebullience of young Dinka composers from two rival tribal sections achieved expression, within traditional poetic convention, in an exchange of elaborate boasts and threats and insulting jokes. The conflict in question, though suspended, was not over when I left Dinkaland, pan muonyjaang. For this reason, in this account, the names of some men, women and oxen have been changed. At the time of the recording, the singers had been banned from performing in public by the local chiefs’ court. And I was enjoined not to play the tapes where members of both sections might be listening together, for fear of inciting further violence.
Dinka friends and colleagues have sometimes expressed reserve over the ribald element in the songs below: they consider them, doubtless correctly, as examples of a low genre, not representative of the highest traditions of their poetry. Certainly these songs, with their rich vocabulary of abuse, must be distinguished both from the corpus of Dinka sacred songs and from the lyric elegance of songs of praise for oxen. (There is interplay between genres. In one of the songs quoted below the convention of praising oxen is used to mock, by contrast, the alleged ill-breeding and dog-like behaviour of the singer’s rival.) These songs are a distinct genre, kêêt, insult songs, songs of dispraise, a kind of burlesque. In this instance, though, they went well beyond a joke; reputations were impugned and blood was spilled over them.
I was not the first to spread the songs beyond the village: some of them were already being sung in Juba, the Southern capital—and in the national capital Khartoum—but I may have been the first to make recordings of them. On the few occasions that I played these recordings in Agar territory they drew crowds of all ages, provoking a dangerous hilarity. If they should be the cause of further conflict in future, then some of the responsibility will be mine.
Inevitably, the complexities of Dinka poetic diction are lost in these translations, which I made with the help of my research assistant, the late Robert Maker Joseph (see Afterword). It was Robert Maker, in fact, who instigated the exercise. This was, he said, in order to educate me in the origins of intercommunal conflict among the Agar Dinka. He introduced me to the singers and provided the historical background to the dispute. We strove to make accurate transcriptions of the songs, but a scholarly account would require more detailed linguistic knowledge and analysis of the originals.
Because Dinka poetry is composed orally and exists as a shared art only in performance it contains many repetitions and redundancies, most of which I have excluded. Assonance and alliteration are recognised poetic devices. (The version of Dinka orthography used here, it may be noted, corresponds phonetically in some respects to Italian: ‘c’, for example, is pronounced roughly as ‘ch’ in English.) Generally singers perform unaccompanied, except for the lowing of their oxen and the clanking of cow-bells. When performing solo they sing rapidly in high lilting voices; some singers are celebrated as much for the beauty of their voices as for their songs. A Dinka composer who I discussed this with compared songs to food: you must have good ingredients, and they also need to be blended with skill. Choler and spleen were among the ingredients of the songs considered below, but no one denied the skill of the confectioners.
The conflict between Duor and Athoi sections
The songs were collected in Rumbek in 1980, in July, when the rains were slack and the groundnuts ripening. Robert Maker and I had just been to Karic, his home village, in the territory of the Yek, or Duor, a section that has a particular reputation among other Agar—at least in the account of neighbouring sections—for their readiness to fight. The principle of segmentary opposition that operates in what may be termed traditional Nilotic societies obliges clansmen to side unquestioningly with their kin against a different clan, while members of these same clans will unite with each other in a dispute with a different tribal section, and these sections in turn unite against another tribe or sub-tribe. The Duor section, in fact, had recently involved other Agar sections in a year-long war with their neighbours to the east, the Apak Atuot (historically a non-Dinka group, but long acculturated into cieng Muonyjaang, the Dinka way). This had ended in a pitched battle that left twenty-eight dead. In Karic we were regaled with accounts of this battle; and a group of elders sang an old war-song which illustrates the hyperbolic threats that are characteristic of this genre, kong:
My ox Mayom is fearless
He is fearless
My spear is red with blood
We sacrifice to the spirit of the men of Duor
When the moon waxes and when it has waned
In battle we attack again and again
Until the earth is all plowed up
The earth is all plowed up
Spirit of my fathers, we have a debt to pay
Manyang’s son has spoken; so has Guerlok’s
Marial’s son has run amok
He is driving the enemy into the ground
Spirit of my fathers, we have a debt to pay
I am a bull, hated by the enemy
The enemy will be destroyed if I use only half my strength
If I am far from home, still they will be destroyed
They will be destroyed
People of Mayen Abyei,
I am a bull, fixed as the rock
A bull, fixed as the rock
Adel, what has made the people so angry?
They are as strong as a python; they are making sacrifices
I speared the ox Makuei in Wunrot
Our generation grinds men into dust
If we hate a thing
We hate it
If we are at peace
We let it be
It was a Duor elder who reminded Robert of the feud between their section and Athoi of Rumbek. Being a dispute within the larger Agar grouping, this was subordinate to the war with the Apak, where the two Agar groups, Duor and Athoi, had fought sideby-side against the Apak people. The Duor-Athoi feud had not given rise to casualties and had only involved a few injuries. But it had generated an opus of insult poetry. And it had been considered serious enough to warrant prophylactic interference by the chiefs’ court in Rumbek.
Mapuor Mading versus Makordit Mayen
The conflict had begun two years before, in 1978, when Mapuor Mading, a young man of Duor, heard that Makordit Mayen, from Athoi, who was already well-known as a composer among the Agar, had been singing a new song that lampooned the Duor. Duor people, said Makordit, could not hunt, or cultivate properly, and they were so weak and shameless that they used their carved wooden headrests to sit on while excreting. This song was the beginning of two years of rhetorical exchange and rising tension between the two sections
Competition between composers is commonplace in Dinka communities, and the ritual exchange of sung insults is an established practice. Mapuor accordingly composed a reply to Makordit; Makordit responded with another insult song. During the fattening period at the end of the rains that year Mapuor had a sculptor called Mapuor Golong make a grotesque statue of Makordit, who was afflicted by leprosy. In traditional Dinka thought leprosy is held to run in families. Even among the Duor the statue was considered a low move, with suggestions of witchcraft. Makordit threatened a war between his section and Mapuor’s section, and a number of fights occurred between groups of Athoi and Duor youths at dances and elsewhere. But the chiefs’ court in Rumbek summoned the singers, banned the songs, confiscated the statue and fined each singer sixty Sudanese pounds and four cows.
That was how things stood in 1980 when I arrived in Rumbek. For Makordit and Mapuor it was still a burning issue: they needed no persuading from me to perform, in the comparative seclusion of their own households, long stretches of their very extensive repertoires, kêêp and waak and kêêt.
Makordit lived in the town. Because he had leprosy he could not herd cattle, though this affliction did not stop him drawing attention to the physical deformities of his opponents and their failings as herdsmen. He cut a striking figure, festooned with bracelets of ivory and brass, wearing a curly black wig, and riding a donkey; the last two both unusual in Dinkaland. He played a Jew’s harp made from a hair grip, also an unusual accoutrement. Makordit sang for us for three hours without a break, even to drink. When he sang songs against Mapuor he punctuated his singing with hyena-like laughter, but he stopped the tape when his donkey began to bray.
Mapuor was not so handsome either, but he mocked Makordit’s afflictions mercilessly, scratching himself with balled-up fists to represent the stumps of Makordit’s hands, twisting his face to imitate Makordit singing. (In court, it was said he had mimicked his opponent behind the judges’ backs.) Mapuor wore an ostrich-feather plume and cowrie-shell bracelets, his hair was bleached orange with bull’s urine, in the manner of young Dinka men at that time. He drummed on an empty jerry-can while he sang. His singing attracted the neighbours; by the time he had finished there were fifty or more people under the mango tree in the courtyard of the house where we were. To show that insult songs were not his only forte Mapuor sang a number of songs that he had composed before the dispute with Makordit, ox-songs, fattening songs, and one that he had composed while courting his wife:
Yar Majok Abuong. Wa!
Her name rings like a pestle
A pestle that grinds groundnuts, one that grinds grain
A pestle grinding simsim seed–thi-thi-thi
How I love Yar, the daughter of Ayen,
Whose name is like a pestle grinding grain
But Makordit, it turned out, had also composed a song about Mapuor’s wife. This began as a conventional ox-song, but after a few lines praise of oxen began to alternate abuse of Mapuor with aspersions on the reputation of Yar Majok, his wife:
The black patch on my ox Mabil is the colour of the rain
When lightning flashes from thunder clouds,
Clouds as black as the bull Makuei…
But Yar Majok is playing around in Pacop
With a member of the age-set of Mabor Alueth
Wa! She’s like a bitch on heat
Yes she is. She’s a dog-wife. I say so.
What’s Mapuor going to do about this?
Mabil was bought with cows from Padeng Matik and Macol Koc
And in his honour I sacrificed a bull belonging to Mapin Keciec
Indeed this ox of mine cost many cattle
As many as it would take to fill
The swamp that lies between Yar’s thighs
This ox Mabil is mine, he sticks fast by me
And a sweet-potato blight
Sticks fast to the root of Mapuor’s penis
How angry I am with this man of Cic, of Wut Abyei, the son of Acol
Who has lumps in his groin
Like the place between Akoth and Wuntit where the anthills are
I will say nothing against you Mapuor—after all
You are an in-law of Nyithiuny of Pan Kon Bol—
But if this disease is affecting your brain
Then something will have to be said
And the ox Makuei is black, as black as the flood as Pacuok
When Mapuor squatted down without waiting to reach the edge of the homestead
And looked back and saw his in-laws watching and jumped in the water
After eating green beans at the house of Manyang Dender
While going to irrigate tobacco on the bank of the river Bar Na’am
Trampling sorghum and farting all the way.
Mapuor’s reply to these slurs was a learned and mocking reflection on the possible causes of leprosy: eating cur-fish, eating the flesh of your clan emblem (in Makordit’s case, ajuong, the man-eating lion), taking food or drink after a fight without making a sacrifice, or killing a man and denying it. After thus pondering the origin of Makordit’s disability Mapuor made an appeal to public opinion, calling on higher authority to put an end to his rival’s libels.
Makordit, son of Ater, is annoying the town
Demanding attention: people are tired of him
Buzzing around like a fly in the heat,
Makor Mayen Ater, better known as the Leper.
People of Rup! People of Rumbek!
I have swatted this stupid fellow
So you can sleep in peace
No more songs will be sung against you
Commissioner of Rumbek! Commissioner of Khartoum!
People of Wau! This man should be shot, shot with a gun
Makordit is a beggar and his donkey is a thief
Makordit whose teeth are like the spines of a comb
Makordit whose penis is as bulbous as a bell
Makordit whose eyes are like the spittle of tobacco-chewers
This man should be shot, yes, shot with a gun
But the song did not silence Makordit. His slurs became baroque, involving intimate accusations against other relatives and ancestors of Mapuor. It was thought that he was being assisted with information supplied by a renegade member of Mapuor’s own clan. At this point, with the mutual insults of Makordit and Mapuor ringing in their kinsmen’s ears the chiefs’ court in Rumbek made their intervention. They confiscated the grotesque carved statue of Makordit that had been commissioned by Mapuor, and banned the songs. Officially, these were sung no more, and no more were composed, though some who listened to our recordings discerned new insults that had been interpolated in the old songs since the trial.
The vitality of ribaldry
To some sensibilities these songs may seem to be in poor taste, dwelling as they do on physical deformity, disease, incontinence and so forth. For the village-dwelling Dinka they are vulgar too, but for a Dinka audience the fact that something is ridiculous or shameful does not necessarily mean it should not be spoken of, or sung. To hazard a generalisation, my sense was not that the people I knew in Rumbek thought that the art of insult could ease conflict; on the contrary, they acknowledged that it might well encourage and exacerbate it. But the tendency among them was to favour the open expression of disagreement, so that resolution could follow, whether by peaceful or by warlike means.
It is for this reason, among others, that many from the area, including some I worked with in 1980, later became involved in conflict on a national scale, the civil war that began in 1984. This is a conflict where both the weapons and the rhetoric are very different. In this new, much wider conflict automatic weapons and landmines have displaced spears and clubs. And the language of national liberation is superimposed on that of tribal or other loyalties. The confusion and brutality of the present civil war in the Sudan and the unreality of the political discourse it has engendered stand in contrast to traditional Nilotic arts of war and collective dispute. It unsettles the balance between verbal and physical violence in Dinka tradition. It may be predicted, however, that the vitality of Dinka ribaldry and insult will outlast war, that it will survive the harsh dislocations and cryptic violence of modernity. ★
In May 1988 I heard that my research assistant, Robert Maker Joseph, had died. He was killed during an assault by his battalion of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) on the government garrison in Bentiu. (Bentiu is the site of Sudan’s first oil well, the optimistically named Unity I.) It was Robert Maker who introduced me to the singers whose long quarrel is recounted in this piece; he and I worked together in Rumbek on the translations of the songs. Robert was a person of outstanding intelligence and kindness, a gifted teacher who helped me find my feet in Dinkaland. May he rest in peace. His death, like the deaths of so many of his contemporaries in the current war, is a great loss.